Contemporary Art @ Boğaziçi - Interview Project, 2010

David Rokeby (Toronto, 1960)

Aslıhan Gönç, B.U.,

David Rokeby is an installation artist based in Toronto, Canada. He has been creating and exhibiting since 1982. For the first part of his career he focussed on interactive pieces that directly engage the human body, or that involve artificial perception systems. In the last decade, his practice has expanded to included video, kinetic and static sculpture. His work has been performed / exhibited in shows across Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia.

Aslıhan Gönç: You're a pioneer in interactive art and your famous work Very Nervous System was a breakthrough, a new art piece including all the technology within a relationship with human body, and what about the beforehand of this work?
We know that its technology is used to cure Parkinson’s disease today and was this one of your concerns before working on the project or what made you think about creating this, where was the inspiration coming from?

David Rokeby: The initial inspiration came from the desire to create works of art where the viewer had some clear part in the creation of the piece. I did some works prior to Very Nervous System which was interactive without involving any technology. I felt that some of the problems in the relationship between contemporary art and the public came from the fact that people no longer knew how to relate to works of art. They felt excluded and stupid. I felt that the work of art, regardless of its medium does not come into existence until it is seen, read, heard, etc. I think that we as viewers are always re-completing the work using elements of our own life experience. But I felt that this essential fact about the art experience had been lost. I tried to play around with art pieces where the way that the viewer contributed to the work was explicit and clear.
Secondly, everything about the computer makes you want to forget your body and real space. So I wanted, with the computer to create an artwork that flipped this upside down, stressing the role of the body and existing in real space. Thirdly I was having difficulties with some ideas about musical composition. In particular, I was working a lot with recorded sounds… combining them into compositions in the style of musique concrete, and found that every combination of these real-world sounds sounded great. This posed a problem to me as a composer. If all combinations are interesting, how or why should I choose? This lead me to explore systems of possibility, such as interactive systems like Very Nervous System. By creating the possibilities of sounds occurring at particular times rather than specifying precisely when these sounds should occur in time, I was able to resolve my compositional crisis.
The use of Very Nervous System for Parkinson's disease was an experiment. Unfortunately, the experiment is not longer active. The problem was that when they exposed patients to my installation, they saw measurable improvement in the patients. But when they tried to pull apart the experience and analyze the source of this effect, they could find nothing. They were unfortunately not sufficiently courageous to present their results to the medical community, because it would be unacceptable to have to say that the artwork itself was what aided the patients, since this is not GOOD SCIENCE. But of course, what I had created was an aesthetic experience, finely tuned to encourage a quality of movement. The value of this integrated experience was of course lost when they tried to dissect it. You cannot dissect and integrated experience without destroying it.


Aslıhan Gönç: Or is this what art is, not thinking much about the result but just creating and then analyzing its benefits?

David Rokeby: For me it is usually pursuing a question… and not knowing where it will end up. If I know where it will end up then there is no purpose in creating the work. I need the process of the creation of the work to be a journey, an adventure. I need to learn along the way and be surprised, or else I get bored.

Aslıhan Gönç: Expanding your practices to sculptures and videos, you are using a wide selection of mediums in your works, how would you describe new media art today and its future?

David Rokeby: I have always stated that I hoped some day that interactive technologies would someday simply be part of the artist's palette. I am always interested in stretching beyond my boundaries. At some point "interactive art" became a boundary or a cage that I needed to break out from. I hope that there is no future for new media art. Meaning that I hope that artists of all sorts will use these technologies in their art where and when appropriate.
Having said this, I will alternatively say that we need artists to be engaged in critical exploration of whatever is new in our cultural environment. This however is not what is conventionally considered as "new media art". Artists get stuck to the media they are trained in. (myself included) I have struggled hard to break free of these limitations. There are those in the new media orthodoxy who do not like this. Apparently I am a traitor!... I love the feeling of flexibility.

Aslıhan Gönç: With your work Next Memory City represented in Venice Architecture Biennale in 2002, you created a map and visualized how people were moving in time and creating a movement in large space... And with these elements altogether but are also freed from time and space it feels like the time is passing by and everything is changing and we cannot control this, we can but frame it.
In most of your works you use time, space, language and body relations. So, how do you felt before and afterwards this work? What was the idea underlying?

David Rokeby: The signature that a person makes as they move through space is an articulation in a subtle way of their intelligence and motivation, their state of mind, etc. Observing a person, we gather a sense of how they feel… there is an empathy involved here. We are witnessing their relationship to their body, to the space and to the social environment. The same appreciation of the "information" contained in someone's movement is useful for surveillance and tracking. Voyeurism, empathy, suspicion are all at play in public space. Identical systems and processes are involved in these different relations of watching.
That particular piece was created for the Architecture biennale, and part of the idea was to look at the space created by building rather than the buildings themselves. I was interested in the multi-layered social ecology of Piazza San Marco, in particular, how this played out across time. I have always been interested in the dynamism of space… the turbulence and texture of space as charged by movement, social engagement, etc. These pieces make this sort of dynamism visible.
I also have an interest in "seeing"… how we see, and how this helps to define who we are as humans. These algorithms of tracking extend seeing in ways that we cannot easily do naturally with our eyes and mind. It is my hope that this helps to make us think more deeply about seeing.

Aslıhan Gönç: Or is there a message/ a criticism underlying, to the system that are tracking us all the time? Like in Sorting Demons?

David Rokeby: Also this. You cannot separate one from the other. The same technologies that make intense interaction possible make intense surveillance possible. I am all for a kind of literacy of technology in culture. I am not absolutely against surveillance. I do think that we need to be very clear in our understanding of what it represents, how it functions and what limits should or should not be placed on it.

Aslıhan Gönç: With Long Wave you made a static sculpture gain movement with of the audience's movement in the place... In this sense, we could say that by using contradicting elements you are creating something alive, moving and they are still in harmony and they have form a meaning... It is like literature of sculptures or art in a way.

David Rokeby: This is a very interesting suggestion, though I am not completely sure what you mean. Certainly, with long wave, I was interested in making a passively interactive piece. It was explicitly designed to take on strikingly different apparent forms from different points of view and to unfold in a very powerful and continuous way as the view moves through it. I am also interested in the tension between theory and experience. long wave is a visual representation of an abstract mathematical form that is common in nature. long wave as an experience provides an array of subjective experiences. The mathematical form can be considered in the mind "objectively". I am interested in mixing objective and subjective experience… That is where we live as intelligent beings, always stretched between the ideal world of objective experience, theory and language and the lived world of subjective contradiction and multisensory experience.

Aslıhan Gönç: What would you say about Long Wave's creation phases and your preparation period?

David Rokeby: As I often do for a site specific work, I spent a lot of time in the space before deciding what I would do. Then with a few undeveloped ideas, I created a 3D model of the space on my computer and played with these initial ideas. I wanted to take advantage of what was unique about the space and respond to it directly. It is a very beautiful but somewhat austere space. I wanted to create something that complemented its qualities but added something less stable, and more dynamic. Among other things I wanted people to see the space again. Any space you see regularly becomes invisible. long wave made the space visible again to the people who go there every day. I also wanted to represent the invisible dynamism that is contained in any urban space, with all the electromagnetic activity in the air. long wave is the length and pretty much the shape of a radio wave passing through the space.

Aslıhan Gönç: Many of your works are carry the essentials of the philosophic beliefs that you are inspired of, such as in Cloud... Is there any specific person or belief system we can say that has a strong influence on you?

David Rokeby: I like to absorb philosophies and belief systems. I do not really adhere to any particular one. All these attempts to make sense out of the chaos of life are fascinating and moving to me… even when they are ugly, because they at least start out as honest attempts to grasp what is impossible to grasp. I was very influenced at art school by people like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, but mostly I now work from my own experiences. I like asking questions more than finding answers and I feel it is valuable to encourage this process of questioning.

Aslıhan Gönç: Doubtless all your works, each of them has a significance and a different meaning for you.. But since 1980's to today, which of your works affected your life most in philosophical or inspirational ways? With a surprise or unexpected result coming up?

David Rokeby: I must say that the most fascinating processes were the development of Very Nervous System and The Giver of Names. (Not surprising since they each took about 10 years!) n-cha(n)t was perhaps the most surprising to me because I found it moving in unexpected ways, and worked much better than I had expected. long wave was a great pleasure because it was so different from anything else I had done, and worked so well. "Watch" is very important to me as a measure of how simple a work can be. Every work is a journey.

Aslıhan Gönç: You are having many exhibitions, art shows all around the world.. Will we have a chance to see you in Turkey / in Istanbul in the close future? Any exhibition plans here?

David Rokeby: Unfortunately I have no current invitations to exhibit in Turkey...